- Associated Press - Sunday, July 12, 2015

CARBONDALE, Ill. (AP) - Married people separated from their wedding ring - whether it has been removed for cleaning, sizing or divorce - often say their left hand feels naked.

After many years of wear, its absence is often felt more than its presence. There’s nothing to run a thumb across, no ring to give reminder of the legend that the Vena amoris - in Latin, literally the “vein of love” — connects that symbol of eternity directly to the heart.

But it was different for Michael. For all those decades, he didn’t realize a wedding ring was missing until he and Eddie put theirs on for the first time on Nov. 24, almost six months after gay marriage was officially legalized in Illinois, and almost 50 years after he fell in love with Eddie.

“It felt like it should have been there a long time ago,” said Michael Smith-Salter.

That day, Michael also took the last name of his partner, Eddie Salter, when they exchanged vows on a Monday at the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in downtown Carbondale. It wasn’t a difficult choice to decide whose last name they would share, both said. “Smith” is too generic, they decided. There are fewer “Salters” in the world.



Unable to stand for long periods of time, Eddie, 67, and Michael, 70, sat in wooden rocking chairs while Pastor Katherine Bryant Graves officiated the ceremony, sitting on a stool, in front of a small group of friends.

They repeated their vows, and told a few funny and sweet stories about their courtship, and then exchanged matching gold and tungsten rings.

“They’re $300 rings and we got them for $99 apiece,” Eddie says proudly, retelling the story of their wedding day during a recent visit with The Southern Illinoisan.

Michael sighs and playfully scolds Eddie that it’s not necessary to tell all.

“We would have been together anyway,” Eddie says. “But the paper was important to us. That little piece of paper that is our marriage license was important to us.”

Also important for these Christian men, both baptized years ago, was being blessed in a church, and not forced to exchange vows at a sterile government office.

After the ceremony, they celebrated over dinner at McAlister’s.

Simple. Just the way they enjoy life these days, growing old together as they always had planned on doing, married as they always hoped they one day could be.

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Pastor Graves said she doesn’t know if all her members of the 100-year-old-plus church are aware that she performed the wedding of Michael and Eddie, but she said church leaders voted last year to allow same-sex marriages after a lengthy study session of Biblical teaching and much prayer.

“We are open and affirming and give the message that here, anyone, everyone is safe to be who they are. We are not going to sit in judgment,” she said. “What is available to any other person in the church will be available to all people at church.”

June 1 - Monday — marks the one-year anniversary of the state law implementation for gay marriage. Several counties, including Jackson County locally, began recognizing gay marriage a few months before, following the Feb. 21, 2014, decision by a federal court in the Northern District of Illinois that allowed same-sex couples in Cook County to begin marrying immediately.

It is estimated that since then, thousands of same-sex couples in Illinois have tied the knot.

Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, said his advocacy organization will attempt to release an official count this coming week of the number of same-sex couples married in Illinois since the law changed.

Cherkasov said there have been no issues in Illinois brought to his attention regarding county clerks refusing to follow the law.

“We’ve heard of no glitches, and no reports of negative treatment,” he said, noting it seems a little odd to celebrate the fact that people can marry, but adding that it was a personal right “long fought and hard won.”

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Like with many same-sex couples, it was also for Michael and Eddie, a long walk, figuratively speaking, to the altar.

Eddie, a drafted enlistee, had just returned from a tour in Vietnam in the late 1960s. Michael was a florist who spent a lot of time in Arizona with an aunt and uncle, eventually moving there. He counted among his clients the base’s Officers Club.

Michael said the two met through a mutual friend, another military man on the base. Eddie described him as a “flaming queen” - a straight guy who was known to dress in women’s clothing and ride down the street on a motorcycle, a ploy, they said, to get out of the military. (Think fictional M(asterisk)A(asterisk)S(asterisk)H character Sergeant Maxwell Q. Klinger.)

Eddie and Michael don’t have much to say kindly about this mutual acquaintance other than that he was successful in setting them up. When the three of them went for coffee the first time, Eddie and Michael both said they were hoping their friend would leave. The two said they hit it off talking about how ridiculous they thought he was.

That was the start of their courtship, but they were not allowed to openly date. Openly gay and lesbian service members were not allowed to serve in the military before 2011. But the Salters’ love story even predates the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law of the President Clinton-era 1990s.

At this point in time, gay men were considered unfit for service.

“If I had been disgraceful to my uniform, then I would have been court martialed and discharged from the military,” Eddie said, hanging on to the language of the day.

That’s why they were so surprised when one evening Michael was invited to a fancy dinner at the Officers Club. The brass really did it up, he said, spending generously on food and the party. He was honored to be invited but figured that was the extent of it. There were lots of speeches - and finally, one for him.

He said a commander called him to the front of the room, and thanked him for his gift of bringing beauty to the base in a time of national unrest. There were applause, and also a gift in the shape of an envelope. The officer insisted he open it right there, in front of everybody.

“I opened it up,” Michael said, “and there were three pages folded. I began to read what it said: Edward James Salter and Michael L. Smith are going on a two week, all-expenses paid vacation to Hawaii and will be staying at the military base on the big island of Hawaii.”

“I was dumbfounded,” Michael says.

“We went first class on a 747, too,” Eddie adds. “We even walked up to the edge of the volcano and looked inside at the lava sloshing against the sides.”

Michael said the officers knew the two were a couple. “Officers are different than enlisted people,” he said. “They’re a little more savvy. They really didn’t mind. They were all friends of mine.”

The two went on to live in San Diego and Las Vegas before returning home to Carbondale. Today, they live in a condo in a retirement community, surrounded by memories and things they love, including an antique harp from the 1800s, an autographed picture of Liberace standing next to Michael, also a musician, and the ashes of Michael’s mom, who accepted and loved them both as her sons.

Nearing the end of their jointly told love story, Eddie, originally of Upstate New York, grows serious and says how grateful he was to have found Michael, a Carbondale native, all those years ago. It’s the best thing that could have happened to him, he says.

Michael rolls his eyes and feigns a conspiratorial whisper: “I tried to get rid of him, I swear.”

Says Eddie: “Yeah, like a bad credit card. I complicate Michael’s life too much.”

They both laugh. Michael’s chuckle is polite and soft. Eddie guffaws from the belly in fits and starts.

They pull out a picture of their wedding day. Their names and ages, and the date, is scribbled on the back. Clarifying which is the eldest, Michael claims that.

“Of course I look 34,” Michael says.

Eddie responds: “He thinks he’s real handsome, see?”

He then shakes his head and adds, as if it wasn’t obvious, “We’ve been together forever.”

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Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan, https://bit.ly/1GtOVfC

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Information from: Southern Illinoisan, https://www.southernillinoisan.com

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